1 Peter 1: 3-9, Psalm 16, John 20: 19-31
“Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We may be able to resonate with this story from John’s gospel on so many different levels as we continue to live in this socially or some would prefer to say “physically distanced’ world. We begin hearing about the disciples who are hunkered down in their house behind locked doors late in the day of the same evening that Mary Magdalene has told them that their Lord has been raised from death. They are hiding in fear, perhaps from the authorities who might accuse them and come to see if they have stolen the body of Jesus and hidden him, or maybe because they are still terrified by what happens next now that Jesus has died.
We ourselves may be struggling with a sense of foreboding and fear as we try to stay put in our own isolated spaces, maybe feeling privileged if we have a beautiful home, condo or apartment to hang out in, either alone or with our family. We may feel fear that we may catch the virus, especially if we are a certain age or if we already have a compromised immune system; perhaps worrying about our existing medical problems or perhaps we fear what is happening to our own finances or our family members well-being. …As our minds move outward beyond our own circumstances, listening daily to the news, looking around our own neighbourhoods, especially the neighbourhood downtown around our church, where the homeless and those living in rooms are doing their best to maintain their survival for now- there is a lot to bring fear to our minds.
Going back to the gospel, despite their fear and the locked doors, Jesus still finds the disciples, the people that he believes in, that he has painstakingly taught for several years. He shows up, his wounds fully on display even after death, and offers them peace – peace be with you – and he breathes into their ragged and fragile spirits the Spirit of Life….sing Spirit of Life….reminding us of how God once breathed life into the very first human -Adam. Believing in John’s gospel is not about having a list of doctrines that you pull up on your mental screen to prove that you are a Christian or to prove that God is somehow in ‘control’, but believing is a verb, about nurturing an active relationship with God who we claim is the source of life that will sustain us, especially when times get tough and even disastrous– which they certainly are now for many.
The encounter that Thomas had with Jesus is also significant, not because he supposedly doubted that Jesus was risen, but because Jesus met him where he was, gave him what he needed in order to believe. He showed up again the next week and let him see and even touch the scars in his hands and side. I know how we long to touch those we love for real today that may be far from us, seen only through a distant window or door or computer screen. But belief and hope and love are spiritual things, that do not need touch in order to have power. Jesus encouraged Thomas to move beyond the need for physical proof of his presence to just become a believing person who would be a witness to this love and mercy that even death could not suppress. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
There is no doubt that we are living into a time when this forced isolation is causing us to search deep within us for our living source of , courage peace and hope. It’s a time where the ‘pause’ button for ‘life as normal’ has been pressed, when the whole world has been asked to step back, slow down, and if we are wise, to use this as an opportunity to reflect on our lives, our frenetic pace of living, over consumption, our constant activity and movement.
It’s like a forced sabbath for all of us, and if we can limit our zoom calls, Facebook, Instagram twittering and Netflix watching, this is a wonderful time for contemplative prayer, for wondering, for dreaming, for holding those close that we share space with, for allowing our imaginations to begin reflecting on our our lives, our church, our society …. So that we can move forward in a more sustainable way in the future once we learn to manage and hopefully cure this virus.
I’ve been able to attend a free zoom conference this week with 5 church leaders in the US, two of whom are well known authors – Brian MacLaren -who has been trying to open up the relationships between churches and other religions for years, and Diana Butler Bass, who is a church historian. For sure, they see this as an important time of sabbath, and hopefully as an opportunity to connect with God and each other in more profound ways. Diana Butler Bass in the last week has been thinking about the various Christians in the past who chose to socially isolate themselves over the centuries, some like the early church fathers and mothers who moved to the desert to get away from the Roman Empire ( we think about John the Baptist and the Essenes) , to the women of the Middle Ages who formed cloistered communities where they could live independently and be self-sufficient, to people like Julian of Norwich, who hid away in a tiny cell to remain at a safe distance from the Black Plague that had wiped out her entire family. From there she shared her prayer life through personal visits to her cell and shared her writings that have been speaking to people for generations since. She profoundly influenced my life of faith in my twenties and thirties.
Other significant religious reformers who lived during a time of fear during the plague, reformers like Martin Luther and John Wycliffe, offered hope and encouragement to their people despite their fear of death and suffering of which they saw plenty. Wycliffe evidently lived his life in fear of the plague and after studying scripture deeply realized the importance of the “priesthood of all believers”, a challenge to the papacy, hearing the call for all people who experience God’s love and forgiveness, to know themselves to be priests, to minister to everyone, knowing they were equally bearers of that divine love, not just those who were ordained.
I have found so much solace and comfort in reading Peter’s words this week, a message to his community who were experiencing a time of great suffering because of their faith in Christ. Unlike those first disciples, they had not had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, they had not seen nor touched his wounds, yet they had come to experience the presence of the risen Christ as God’s son, filling their hearts with hope and strength. Peter encouraged them to nourish the hope that had been given to them, to realize that it was a living hope because of the ongoing presence of Christ in their lives, that would support them no matter how much suffering they were going to endure. They were asked to look back into their own history and to take that experience of God’s grace and mercy with them as they looked forward into the future. “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:8
So in your quiet times of contemplation and prayer, I would invite you to remember those times in your life when you have been challenged in some way personally….and to recall how you survived those challenges, how you may have grown because of them, to remember how you experienced God’s love, healing, comfort that brought you to a place of healing, or in the case of bereavement, brought you peace and comfort. God may have touched you in your time of prayer, or perhaps with the kind word or touch from another person, cards and messages of support that made you feel less alone.
I know that at times like those, the companionship of others (even virtually now), and the words of scripture have built up my inner reserve to carry on – especially the psalms – 23, 90, 91, 139, John’s gospel, ch 1 and 17, Paul’s letter to the Romans ch 8, Proverbs 8, Isaiah and the prophets– so many sacred texts and poems that make you feel that you are not alone, that you are not the first person to be overwhelmed by fear, loss or grief.
As we gather up these reflections, when in prayer or when we are raking the lawn, going for a well needed walk, practicing yoga or sorting through old photo albums…. we are preparing ourselves for this unknown future that we all are facing so that we can look forward with confidence. Jesus as Thomas was challenged by the Risen Christ in that week after Easter, hopefully we can still hear the call go out to each of us to keep searching for and becoming those signs of hope and life for other people in anyway that we can, being creative, being thoughtful, touching people’s hearts in any way available to us. As you live into those opportunities that present themselves in these times of fear and vulnerability, may you live in peace as Christ dwells within you.
I would like to close with a poem written on March 11 by Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist Minister part of an online church in San Francisco called Church of the Larger Fellowship.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20